Start Your Own Garden

The best way to know exactly what you're putting in your mouth? Grow it yourself.
Bounty from the garden

One of the best — and most rewarding — ways to ensure you’ve always got a good supply of fresh, healthy produce on hand is to grow it yourself. Gardening let's you control everything about your fruits, vegetables and herbs: whether they are organic or not, how ripe they are when picked, how fresh they are when you eat them. Plus, it's incredibly satisfying to sink your teeth into a food that you've grown yourself!

Can't keep a houseplant alive? Have no fear: Even certified black thumbs can harvest fresh herbs, veggies and fruit with these simple tips.

Timing is everything
Before you start, consider the timing. Knowing when to plant which seeds (or seedlings) is crucial; this varies widely depending on climate. For example, warm winters aside, in and around New York City the average last frost date is April 13 — soon after that it’ll be safe to plant warm-weather crops directly in the ground. But in San Francisco, you can begin in February. No matter where you live, if you’re starting from scratch on an outdoor space, you’ll need time to prepare the soil, possibly months.

One way to find out when to start is to ask a neighbor whose garden you admire — you’ll probably get spot-on advice, and maybe even cuttings to get you started! Another option is the staff at your local garden center; not only will they advise you, they can also help you select the proper supplies. Or seek out a master gardener at your university extension agent; they’re trained by the American Horticultural Society. Our advice: spread out your sowing. Choose crops that are suited for different seasons, and you’ll have a rolling harvest that lasts for months.

Plot your course
Don’t have a big yard? A sunny windowsill or balcony is perfect for container gardening, which can yield a variety of herbs, vegetables like tomatoes, lettuce and peppers, or strawberries. No sill? Try a hanging basket. If you’ve got a 4’ x 4’ area, paved or not, consider Square Foot Gardening. You’ll construct a simple grid of 1’ x 1’ squares, each of which holds a different type of plant. In very little space, you’ll have enough variety to fill your crisper indefinitely. But no matter the size of your garden, make sure there’s enough direct sun: vegetables need six to eight hours a day.

Choose a menu
If you’re a beginner, it’s best to fill your first garden with crops that are relatively easy to grow. Good options include:
  • Herbs: Rosemary, basil, parsley, chives, thyme
  • Vegetables: Lettuce, summer squash, radishes, green beans, cherry tomatoes
  • Fruit: Strawberries, blueberries

Heirloom varieties are fruits and vegetables that pre-date industrial agriculture — they’ve never been crossbred for hardiness or yield, and will always grow to resemble their parent plants. But because of this they’re also trickier to nurture, so you may want to test your green thumb on a more widely available variety first.

As for deciding whether to go with seeds or seedlings, expert gardeners offer this advice: Bigger seeds (i.e. cucumber, zucchini) are easier to sow directly into soil. Plants with smaller seeds, like tomatoes and most herbs, are simpler to buy as seedlings and transplant.

Get your hands dirty
Next, let’s talk soil. Since this is where your produce will thrive or wither, it’s immeasurably important. If you’ll be planting in the ground, it’s a good idea to test your soil’s ph balance. Many nurseries and Web sites sell home testing kits, which will tell you the acidity or alkalinity of the soil so you can modify as needed — most vegetables prefer slightly acidic to neutral soil. Take this a step further and have the soil composition tested; the results will come with recommendations for adjustments and fertilizing. Container gardeners have it slightly easier: Depending on what you’re planting, the experts at your local garden store (or that neighbor you’ve befriended) can advise you on what soil to purchase. And don’t forget the mulch! It’s organic material, like compost or special plastic sheeting that’s laid over the soil to insulate and protect tender plantings.

Care and feeding
The hard part’s done, but you can’t just walk away. Check your seed packet or plant labels: Most include specific growing instructions; follow them carefully. One thing all produce needs is water, and lots of it. On average, your garden will need at least an inch of water every week — either from rain or from the hose. Water when the top inch of soil is dry, in the morning, and make sure the soil is soaked to a depth of six to eight inches. A light sprinkling will signal the roots to come to the surface; this could kill them.

If you’ve had your soil tested, you’ll know what type of fertilizer is recommended. Fertilizer needs will vary by crop — take that into account before you plant so you can group items with similar needs together. Organic fertilizer comes from plants and animals and is chemical-free; it also requires a bit more work to get the proper mix of nutrients. Inorganic fertilizer can be easier to manage, since you’ll know exactly what you’re getting.

Harvest your crop just before it reaches full maturity, and savor the fruits of your labor!

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